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Stripping matches from old matchbooks

I cannot stress enough the importance of stripping out the matches from matchcovers to properly preserve the integrity of the paper. Dirt and moisture collects around the base of the matches and the staple causing rust and deterioration. Now I know that some people insist on collecting full book matches, which is their prerogative. But for the rest of us, collecting stripped, flattened matchcovers is the way we have chosen to proceed.

But that creates a problem when you find that long lost matchbook from the 1930s you need for your collection, but it is a full book. I see these in auctions regularly. Normally I won’t bid on them if the cover looks to be damaged at all because I am afraid that I will irreparably damage the cover trying to get the matches out. I know some collectors will keep this cover as a full book, but I just don’t want to collect full books. This raises a dilemma that each of us needs to address in our own way.

I had a decision to make at RMS this year when I saw a lot of fifteen Group I movie star full books from a hard to get set. I needed several of these covers for my collection. The good news is that they were in pristine shape, which meant I should be able to strip the covers safely. It was still a gamble, but the covers went for far less than I expected and I won the lot. The good news is that they came apart well and are now properly flattened and displayed in a plastic page in my collection.

While we often hear the discussion about whether to strip or not, I have not heard much about the process of stripping older covers. The first problem is that the staple used to be inserted the opposite direction as we see in later covers, often putting the teeth of the staple embedded in the striker. Simply pulling the match combs apart as is common when stripping newer covers usually promises a bad outcome. I am not sure what the best option is, but I will tell you what works for me.

I start with the Bostitch staple remover that I use in all my stripping of covers. It is available for less than $3 online. The tip is filed down a little to provide a sharper edge for getting underneath tight staples. It works similar to a pocket knife that many collectors use, but is a little safer for the cover in my opinion. The staple remover will slide under the crown of the staple allowing the metal to be bent ever so slightly up and away from the cover. This allows me to use wire cutters to cut the metal. I then go back to the staple remover to carefully bend each end of the crown up so I can then cut off the exposed crown of the staple completely. At this point, I have not touched the points of the staple that are embedded in the striker surface. With the crown of the staple removed, the cover can me unfolded without any strain on the paper being pulled over any metal prongs. This process exposes the match combs, which I carefully but literally break apart and remove to leave more of the staple exposed. These old matches usually are so brittle they easily fall apart as you gently bend them to remove from the staple and cover. At this point I return to my wire cutter and snip off any excess staple that was exposed. I now have an opened matchcover with only the prongs embedded in the striker. Without any excess staple lodged in the matches, the remaining bits of metal can be dislodged safely from the cover with minimal damage to the striker. Often some of the striker material has been applied to the staple tips, so some damage is inevitable. But I feel this damage is less than what would be caused over time by leaving the staple intact within the paper. I can now flatten the cover, often with the use of a minimal amount of moisture to soften the paper so it opens flat without damage.

I hope this helps some of you to preserve any older full books you add to your collection. Each situation is a little different, but this methodology has worked for me in stripping some old, brittle matchbooks leaving me covers I am proud to put in my collection.


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